Joint Project from Turkish and Israeli ScientistsSESAME technology lab gathered scientists from Middle Eastern countries that are in political conflict under one roof. Sabanci University Engineering and Natural Sciences Faculty Member Prof. Dr. Zehra Sayers is among the founding members of this lab. Sayers has received Award for Science Diplomacy in Washington, USA and became the pride of Turkish scientific community. We talked with succesful scientist Prof. Dr. Sayers about the foundation phase of SESAME and the member countries views on science and politics.
Zehra ÇENGİL KÜÇÜK
By founding SESAME (Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East), you’ve brought together scientists from Middle East countries that are in political conflict and you were honored by American Association for the Advancements in Science with the “Award for Science Diplomacy”. How do you feel about this accomplishment?
I am very happy, honored and proud. The thing that really makes me happy is that SESAME technology lab is now a topic of discussion. People are learning about it and the news about SESAME is spreading. Most people don’t know about SESAME. Even scientists who can benefit from it don’t know about SESAME. There are many people in our country who don’t know about it. This award is important in terms of raising awareness among people. I was very excited when I received the award, I wasn’t expecting to be this much excited. We are five friends who played an important role in building this Project. We all shared this happiness and joy. While the five of us were receiving the award at the podium, I felt that we were sharing this glory.
How many people are working at SESAME? How did you become a founding member?
Currently there are officially 50 people working at SESAME. The founding process started before me. By the end of 90’s, some scientists especially those coming from Middle East who worked at CERN - an institution which has always been an example for us- started to think that an institution like CERN could also be in the Middle East. There were some critical factors. These scientists went to UNESCO to talk about their ideas, plans. I think this is very important. When an institution such as UNESCO believed that this was a viable plan, it was easy to convince others. In a way, I think with UNESCO’s endorsement, the Project gained prestige. Secondly, the people who led this Project, Herman Winick and Gus Voss, two accelerator physicists suggested that a synchrotron that was about to be shut down in Germany could be donated to Middle East. They noted that if the already existing pieces could be dismantled and mounted at Middle East, it would create a focal point on which scientists could work on. I got involved in the Project two years later. I’ve read about it in the magazines. I was thinking to myself, when the second-hand synchrotron would go to Middle East who would work with it, anyway. But then, I realized it was possible.
Turkey, Iran, Palestinian Authority, South Cyprus, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan are the member countries. During your studies, did you experience any distress regarding overcoming political challenges and/or disputes?
Not personally. SESAME’s administration system includes a SESAME Council. All those countries you mentioned have representatives in this council. This council discusses issues such as budget and the future of the lab... There may sometimes be tension during these discussions but, there is a ground rule at SESAME: “We leave politics at the door”. Since there are scientists among us who had worked at international science institutions, they are especially mindful of managing our work in a diplomatic way. This way any tension can be easily overcome. Scientists never experience mutual rejection. There was only one time when a known Palestinian scientist said “I will never be a part of this Project.”
The goal of SESAME Project is to build bridges between people through science and to change Middle East’s destiny. How would you describe the progress and the momentum in achieving this goal?
In fact, SESAME’s goal is doing good science. We, as the employees are trying to maintain the high quality of science. If we do science in high quality, we believe that the relationship between people will improve as well. For science to gain prestige, it needs to be good. Integrating it to politics in the long run is not something a single lab can do. However, it can be a trailblazer. The progress until now has been astounding. At SESAME, there were financial challenges rather than political ones. Getting to this point is like a miracle. The first experiments are being conducted and we are starting to get results. This way, people will be more interested. We also want different countries to become members. It will help the institution in terms of financial means and diversity.
How do you obtain funds?
Member countries pay a yearly fee. They have a certain share. Like at CERN. Other than that, we get our funding from EU through various projects. Italy has also made some contributions. Some foundations also support us. We also have a special program initiated by American Physical Society. All physics foundations are asked to allocate a certain amount of funding for SESAME. We use this funding to enable more young people to attend conferences.
On what level do you think is bio-physics and molecular biology studies are in Turkey?
I think molecular biology is quite advanced. I also think bio-physics is also improving. These developments can also be observed in biomedical and neurophysiology fields. I actually think that there are very valuable and esteemed researchers and they are good at what they are doing. Sometimes I ask myself, "Even though we have a lot of ingredients to cook, why can't we use these ingredients together in the best and most useful way we can?” I still haven’t figured out the answer to this question.
Anything you would like to add?
I want rising generations to carry the torch and lead SESAME . I’m confident that they will move SESAME forward. We are inviting other countries to join SESAME. In general, Israel and Turkey worked very close in this Project and they led the way. When we came to a serious financial impasse, we got a proposition from Israel. They suggested that if 5 countries got together and voluntarily paid 1 million dollars a year for 5 years in addition to their yearly fees, we could overcome this financial impasse. Turkey was among these 5 countries together with Jordan. Only 3 out of the 5 countries were able to contribute this money. If it weren’t for Turkey, Jordan and Israel, this lab couldn’t have been opened easily. This shows that despite on and off political tensions between them, countries can indeed work together.